(Story by Griz Communications)
GREELEY, Colo. – When Savannah Smith, last season’s Big Sky Conference MVP and one of probably two players on the short list for this year’s award, does something she’s never accomplished before in a game, it’s bound to be something special.
Such was the case on Monday night at Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley.
Smith set a Northern Colorado record by scoring 40 points in leading the Bears to 79-61 victory over Montana in a game UNC led from start to finish.
It was Northern Colorado’s sixth consecutive victory over Montana, which dropped its second straight game to fall a full two games behind fifth-place Montana State in the league standings.
“She’s a heck of a player,” said Montana coach Shannon Schweyen, who’s been either playing or coaching in the Big Sky Conference since the late 80s. “One of the best I’ve ever seen in the league.
“That’s what great players do. They win games for their team. She was not going to be denied.”
Smith scored 15 first-quarter points when the teams met in Missoula last month, sparking Northern Colorado to an early lead they would maintain throughout in a 73-62 victory. She would finish with 31.
She was even better in the sequel, scoring 16 points before the game was barely eight minutes old on a variety of moves that few teams have effectively slowed down the last two seasons.
Not only does she have the range of Idaho’s Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, she’s quicker off the dribble. Guard her too closely and she’ll be in the lane, ready to score or dish.
Her 40 points came on just 22 shots. She went 7 of 16 from 3-point range, a perfect 9 of 9 from the line and added seven rebounds and six assists.
“She’s a nightmare trying to guard,” said Schweyen. “We talked about knowing where she was and never leaving her and always being with her. You’ve got to stick with her and everybody else has to react to what you’re doing.
“She has such a good hesitation and good step-back that it’s hard to keep balance on her. Our whole intention was to make her go into the paint. We backed off her a little too much. Credit to her for making those. They were not easy shots.”
Northern Colorado led 25-13 at the first-quarter break after the Bears went 10 for 13 to open the game. UNC went up 14, 27-13, when Smith opened the second quarter with a basket in the paint.
That would be the lead at the half, 39-25, as Montana finally started scoring with the home team.
Smith had 21 at the break after shooting 8 for 11.
“We buried ourselves in the first quarter by getting down that much,” Schweyen said. “I was proud of the way we kept battling back and kept trying to close the gap, but it was a big gap to try to close.
“It was just a bad start to let her get hot and get going. They came out the first quarter and absolutely lit it. If we could have had that start over, it might have been a different ball game.”
The second half had the feel of Montana’s loss at Idaho, when the Vandals were on the verge of making things ugly in the third quarter before the Lady Griz put up a fight.
It wasn’t enough to come back from a big deficit against Idaho, and it wouldn’t be enough on Monday, but the Bears weren’t able to quite coast through the second half either.
After Abby Kain put the Bears up 48-31, Montana scored six straight, the last three points coming off a 3-pointer by Gabi Harrington, who led the Lady Griz with 18 points. A dozen of those came in the second half.
“Gabi had a great game,” said Schweyen. “She’s always going to battle and work hard.”
Montana would cut its deficit to nine early in the fourth quarter and to eight, 59-51, with 3:22 to go on an Emma Stockholm basket.
But Smith would go 9 for 9 from the line in the fourth quarter, the Bears 11 for 13 as they remained within a game of Big Sky leader Idaho with two weekends of league games remaining before the conference tournament in Boise.
Montana shot nearly 60 percent inside the arc but went just 3 of 18 from 3-point range.
“We just didn’t make enough shots or shoot well enough from three. But we fought, and I’m proud of that,” said Schweyen. “I love this group and how they keep plugging away.”
Montana (12-13, 7-9 BSC) will return to Missoula on Tuesday, then travel again later in the week, for games on Saturday and Monday at Southern Utah (6-20, 3-14 BSC) and Northern Arizona (9-17, 5-12 BSC).